Monday, 5 December 2016

Understanding politics

Let me see if I’ve got this right.
If the government are obliged (as seems to be likely, although we should not pre-judge the outcome of today’s Supreme Court hearing) to present a Bill to parliament to trigger Article 50, then Labour will seek to amend that Bill to constrain the form of Brexit.  Without their amendment, they claim that Brexit will lead to a drop in wages, public spending and living standards.  But if their amendment fails, they will not oppose either Brexit or the Bill itself, even if it does lead to a drop in wages, public spending and living standards.  This is called defending ordinary working people from the Tories.
The reason that they can’t oppose either Brexit or the Bill is that the majority of the electorate voted to leave.  But, actually, 48% voted to stay; with Labour now supporting the process of triggering Article 50, the voices of those 48% are represented only by the smaller (in UK terms) parties, who between them account for only around 10-12% of the seats in parliament.  Labour, as the main opposition party does not see it as its job to speak for the main body of opposition amongst the electorate, even if most of its MPs agree with that 48%.
The reason for that seems to be that the majority of the electorate in Labour constituencies voted to leave, even though all the evidence shows that the majority of those who actually voted for the Labour MPs themselves voted to remain; the majority for leave came from those who voted for their opponents.
So, to sum up: Labour MPs feel that it is their duty to speak up for those who voted against them and against the majority of those who voted for them, even if they believe that the outcome of that will be a drop in wages, public spending and living standards which will disproportionately impact on those who actually did vote for them.
Strange business, this politics.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The question doesn't seem to matter

As a general rule, I don’t watch a huge amount of television, but I am something of a news junkie.  That means that I sometimes catch the end minute or two of whatever program happens to be on just before the news.  This week, as a result, I learnt that Stephen Crabb, David Jones, and Cheryl Gillan are all pointless answers.  I don’t know what the question was, but somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Cutting the apron strings

There is a great deal to welcome in this week’s joint report from the Wales Governance Centre and the Electoral Reform Society.  Its conclusions – an increase in the membership and a move to a single class of AM with a more proportional electoral system - are both things which I’ve supported for many years.  Having said that, I don’t agree with everything that they have to say, particularly when it comes to the proposed number of AMs – or rather, how that number has been arrived at.
When I first read the news reports, it struck me that 87 was such a precise number – most previous discussions have talked about round numbers such as 80 or 100.  The reason for arriving at 87 is clear enough; there are 29 Westminster constituencies, and if we allocate three AMs to each, we end up with 87.  The mathematics is clear – but how about the logic?  What, for instance, is magic about 3 members per constituency, when 4 would produce an even more proportional result?  Why do all constituencies have to be the same size and have the same number of AMs?  I understand the argument for equality of representation, but part of the beauty of multi-member constituencies is that they can have different numbers of representatives if they have different numbers of constituents.
The problem that I have with this report is that the outcome is driven by the rather axiomatic assumption that coterminosity is a good thing; in this case, that Assembly constituencies should match Westminster constituencies.  I’m not convinced about that at all; and the report itself notes that “there is little detailed published research of which we are aware on public attitudes to coterminosity”.  I certainly understand why the political parties would prefer consistent boundaries; years of experience of the complications of constituency boundaries not being the same as local authority boundaries means that I am well aware of the difficulties for parties in trying to organise themselves to fight elections across different boundaries.  And were I still a party functionary, I’m sure that I’d be arguing for coterminosity. 
But does it matter to the public?  I’m not aware of any strong evidence of that; indeed, given the recent research on people’s knowledge of the names of their representatives, I’m not sure that it matters much at all.  Insofar as there is a potential for confusion, it’s most likely to arise if multiple elections are held on the same day, it seems to me.  And in Scotland, there is already a disconnect between the constituency boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood – I’m not aware of any evidence that that has led to the public being seriously confused.
If it doesn’t matter to the public, why don’t we start by thinking about what we would ideally do for Wales if we started with a clean sheet of paper?  That will, of course, be a matter of opinion, but given the strong criticism of the new Westminster boundaries for ignoring historic identities and communities, why should we simply follow suit?  What’s wrong, for instance, with having a single constituency for Cardiff (or Swansea, or Newport) and adjusting the number of members upwards?  What’s the problem, for our new Welsh democracy, with recognising rurality by having greater variation in the size of constituencies than is permitted under the new Westminster rules (after all, many politicians in Wales have already argued for precisely that in relation to those new Westminster rules)?  Or more generally, why do we start from the implicit presumption that what happens for Westminster is ‘right’, and everything else has to be built on that foundation?
Now I know that the report’s authors have held discussions with representatives of all the parties before publishing their conclusions.  I don’t know what was said in those discussions, of course; but it may well be that the authors concluded that coterminosity was an essential requirement for there to be any chance of cross-party agreement on the changes; that coterminosity is, in other words, a price worth paying in order to get the two greater prizes of an increase in numbers and a change to the voting system.  And actually, if that were the basis of their conclusion, I’d agree with them.  But that’s a pragmatic argument rather than the one of principle as which it’s being presented.
Pragmatism may have to suffice in the short term, but in the longer term, we really need to free ourselves from the assumption that we have to follow what happens for and at Westminster.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Freedom depends on equality

I have posted a few times on the idea of freedom of movement as being, in principle, a right available to all rather than just a privileged few, and one response which I often get is that allowing freedom of movement to all would lead to even more mass migration than the world is currently seeing.  It’s an argument that I understand, but it’s an argument based on practicalities rather than on principle.  The fact that treating something as a right might cause problems isn’t an argument for saying that people don’t have that right; it’s an argument for considering what those problems are and how they might be tackled.
People choose to migrate for a number of reasons.  (I use the word ‘choose’ rather loosely here; in war-torn countries, or those ravaged by famine and disease, it doesn’t look much like a choice.)  One way or another, the basic driver for most migrants is the search for a better life.  That is as true for the rich person migrating to a tax haven as it is for the poor African seeking a route to Europe; the difference is that ‘better’ means something rather different at the extremes.  Ultimately, the fact that a better life is available elsewhere is down to differences in economic wealth across the world; global inequality is the main driver.  The question, in terms of policy, is how we respond to that; and there are broadly only two possible options.
The first is the one being advocated by virtually all parties in virtually all the world’s wealthy states: pull up the drawbridge, control the borders, select how many (and which) immigrants are allowed in, treat freedom of movement as a privilege only for the few – in essence, to adapt a phrase from another context, “what we have we hold”.  The consequences of that are what we are seeing daily – dispossessed, desperate people risking their lives to travel illegally where they can’t go legally.  And I’m sure that I’m not alone in believing that this is, ultimately, a line which cannot be held, even if we wanted to.
The second is to acknowledge that inequality is the underlying cause and address that inequality.  In essence, that means a deliberate, planned, and managed transfer of wealth from the haves to the have-nots on a global scale.  The UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income in aid barely scratches the surface of what is required, and that’s even truer when at least some of that aid from the richer countries is then spent back in the donor countries.  It is unlikely to be a popular policy as things stand – we are already seeing people talking about cutting the foreign aid budget because ‘charity begins at home’.  I can understand that view as well when there are so many in our own society who are struggling with the basics; but isn’t that, also, the product of inequality, albeit on a more local basis?
At a European level, this is what the structural funds from which Wales has received large sums (even if we have failed to use them wisely) are all about – trying to spread wealth more evenly across the EU.  The essence of much of the Brexit campaign was to reject the idea that rich countries (like the UK) should contribute more in order to achieve that aim, and one can legitimately argue that the people of Wales rejected the whole concept of redistribution (although that hasn’t stopped our politicians from trying to claim an exemption for Wales).  One of the tragedies of politics in Wales was seeing those who have most to benefit from an attempt at equalisation throwing their lot in with the privileged whose starting point is that the rich have an absolute right to increase their share of wealth at the expense of others.  Sometimes, turkeys really do vote for Christmas, it seems.
The EU vote in Wales also served to underline how big the task in front of us is if we want to move to an approach based on spreading wealth rather than raising walls.  If those who would benefit from more equality reject it in favour of the proposition that the rich should hold on to what they have, what chance of persuading the population as a whole to a position of greater altruism in favour of the world’s poor on an even larger scale?  Yet for those of us who believe that building walls and controlling borders is the wrong way to go, that is the task facing us.  We have to make the argument for greater equality, both at home and worldwide.  But where are the politicians with the courage even to attempt that, rather than lamely fall in behind the privileged and the prejudiced?

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Freedom for whom?

They say that a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on, and the speed of media in the twenty first century is only adding to the truth of that.  The fake story about Nigel Farage moving to the US is still being shared and passed on, despite having been repudiated almost immediately.  It’s just too delicious a story; something that many of us would like to believe because of what it would say about his honesty and consistency.  And it helped that this particular untruth started in the Times, usually regarded as being rather more reliable than the tabloids where many of expect to read untruths - and are rarely disappointed.
It made me think a little bit, though, about the idea of ‘freedom of movement’ and what people mean by it.  The Brexit referendum was won, in part, on the rejection of the idea by the Leave side, but for the suggestion that someone like Farage could, if he wanted, up sticks and move to the USA to have any credibility one has to assume that he would see himself as being free to do so.  And I suspect that he would so see himself.  They’re not quite so opposed to freedom of movement when it comes to themselves.
And that in turn made me wonder what the reaction would be if a lot of American citizens decided that they didn’t like the idea of a Trump presidency and would rather like to emigrate to the UK.  Would they be welcome?  After all, an immigrant is an immigrant wherever he comes from, isn’t he?  And I couldn’t help but conclude that the extent of any welcome might depend on a range of factors.  The most obvious is wealth – wealthy immigrants are always welcomed more than poor ones.  And I rather suspect that ethnic origin and language might play a factor as well.
And that brings me back to what people mean when they refer to freedom of movement and restricting it.  It seems to me that they are, ultimately, in favour of freedom of movement for some but not for others.  Rich, white, English-speaking immigrants are more acceptable than poor, black, non-English speakers.  Freedom of movement is seen as a privilege for the few, not a right for the many.  In the case of the parties which traditionally stand for the privileged few, that shouldn’t surprise us – but Labour’s position has essentially become the same, quibbling only about a few details. 

But what if we ask ourselves who are the people with the greatest need to be able to move elsewhere in order to escape a “nasty, brutish and short” existence?  That would be a rather different demographic.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Highlighting the article

UK Prime Ministers, of whatever colour, bang on about ‘the special relationship’ with the US.  In fairness, all US Presidents refer, in return, to ‘a special relationship’ with the UK.  The difference between the two positions is small; so small that some don’t even notice the difference when people speak, but the use of the indefinite article highlights a huge gulf in what the phrase means.
For the US, the relationship with the UK is one of a number of ‘special relationships’; it’s not unique.  The degree of ‘specialness’, as well as the number of such relationships varies over time, depending on the perceived interests of the US at any given point.  That difference was highlighted by the fact that the UK Prime Minister was apparently around eighth on the list to receive a call from the President-elect.  For the UK, there is one and only one such relationship.  That alone underlines that this is not as reciprocal as it is generally painted.  It also tells us something about the attitude of successive UK governments; whilst they are always extremely keen to avoid upsetting the US, it doesn’t work the same way in the other direction.
The question which interests me is why UK governments are so keen on this particular relationship that they are prepared to prostrate themselves before whoever the US citizens elect to lead their country.  There’s surely more to it than the parody in ‘Yes, Minister’ when Hacker gets so excited about the photos of him on the White House lawn appearing in the UK press.
It may stem partly from the linguistic connection.  Churchill described the US and UK as “two countries divided by a common language”, but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of direct communication unmediated by translation in the way people relate to each other.  That language issue in turn isn’t unrelated to the imperial past; one of the glories of empire is, apparently, bequeathing the English language to the world, even if that language is increasingly, and with considerable justification, being referred to as American.
And that imperial past is relevant in another way as well: there are those who seem still to regard the US as some sort of wayward child, for which the ‘mother country’ still has a fond (if not always entirely deserved) regard.  It’s yet another example of the way in which the UK establishment appear to be so attached to the past that they are determined to continue living there.
But, tempting as it is to regard all this as touching, not to say a little touched, it has at least two major problems for the citizens at large.  In the first place, it means that much of what passes for UK foreign policy is decided in Washington rather than in London (it’s called ‘getting our country back’, apparently), even if those who benefit from that policy are also on the other side of the Atlantic; and the second is that it has been part of the reason, for decades, that the UK has failed to engage properly or enthusiastically with our more natural partners in Europe.
One of the reasons for de Gaulle’s vetoes on UK membership of the EEC was that he feared a US Trojan horse in the top councils of Europe.  And I suspect that, on the one issue where a popular referendum has gone against the US’s wishes (for the UK to stay in the EU), the US policy was driven by exactly that which de Gaulle feared – a desire to have a tame voice in those councils.
Even with a Trump government for which trade deals are about the US getting what it wants at everyone else’s expense, the siren voices of the US puppets are still telling us that the wayward child will make an exception for us, because we’re so ‘special’, despite all the hard evidence to the contrary.  Just what will it take for the UK to wake up to reality and accept that it’s a middling size state in a global economy rather than a superpower ruling the waves in a two-country alliance?  I suspect that the only thing that will achieve that is the end of the UK as a single state.  And given where they’re now taking us, that can’t come soon enough.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The IDS petard

Over the weekend, one ex-Tory leader (Iain Duncan Smith) laid into another (John Major) after the latter suggested that a second referendum could be held on Brexit once the details are clear.  IDS’ argument, as I understand it, is that a vote has been taken and that should be final.
The problem for IDS in taking that line is that there was a previous vote on membership of the EU back in 1975, but rather than accepting the result of that vote he has himself spent many years arguing that the decision should be reversed.  Votes are only ‘final’, it seems, when they produce the ‘right’ answer.
Now it might be argued that that isn’t a fair comparison, either because (a) it was a long time ago, or (b) things have changed since then.  And I would consider that the second of those, at least, is an entirely fair argument and a reasonable justification for seeking a new vote on the question.  I’m a lot less convinced that the mere passage of time justifies a new vote.  But even accepting only the second still opens up two more questions, on neither of which did IDS shed much light.  The first is ‘how much has to change before the situation is considered to be a new one?’ and the second is ‘who decides that anyway?’.
Clearly, the position he has taken over many years shows that he accepts that change in circumstances is a reasonable ground for re-opening a question, so the only argument he has left to deny a further opportunity is that the outcome of Brexit in reality will be little or no different from that which the electorate thought would be the case on 23rd June.  Until the final terms are known, it is at least theoretically possible that he could be proven right on that, but it looks extremely unlikely at this point.  And a major part of that unlikelihood is the direct result of the untruths he and others told about the outcome of a leave vote…

Friday, 25 November 2016

Stamping his little feet

Today’s statement by the First Minister to the effect that Welsh ministers will not be puppets over Brexit somehow inexplicably reminded me of some lines from a poem by the late Harri Webb:
“…but if you ignore him he’ll squawk and squawk
and fly into a fearful rage
and rattle the bars of his pretty cage
but he won’t get out, he’ll never try it,
and a cloth on the cage will keep him quiet…”

Other than squawking, just what does the First Minister propose to do? From 1959, when Harri wrote the poem, until 2016, little seems to have changed for Welsh Labour.

I agree with Nige...

There’s an old saying that if an infinite number of monkeys had an infinite number of typewriters, sooner or later one of them would type out the complete works of Shakespeare in the correct order.  It’s not quite on that scale, but if Nigel Farage says enough things, then sooner or later I’m likely to agree with something, at least in part.  Yesterday, he said that he suspected the Conservative Government "is not fit for the legacy of Brexit".  I agree.  The question which then arises, though, is whether there is any other conceivable government, composed of members of the current House of Commons, which would be more fit to deal with that legacy.  And the supplementary question is whether any new parliament which might be elected would be any better.  Given that neither the remainers nor the leavers seem to have much clue, I doubt both.
There is a sketch doing the rounds which seems to many to sum up the situation in which we find ourselves.  It’s exaggerated, of course; most of the best humour is.  But like all good humour, there is a core point which strikes home, and that is that those who argued for this situation haven’t a clue what to do next and seem to expect everyone else to solve the problems that they have created.  Their justification is that it’s ‘democracy’; the majority have chosen a course of action, and it’s up to everyone to rally round to make it work.  There are other ways of looking at the same thing, though.  If a man is about to jump over a cliff, do you assist him or try and talk him out of it?  The answer of all of those opponents of Brexit who say that we must accept the result would seem to be that we should jump with him.
Farage also said that British politics would suffer “another big seismic shock” if Brexit isn’t delivered by the next election in 2020.  I think that he’s probably right to doubt whether the UK will have left the EU by then, unless the extremists get their way and the UK simply walks out one day and worries about the consequences afterwards.  There are too many complex issues to be resolved, and the two year timescale was always entirely arbitrary.  But whether that leads to a seismic shock depends on a range of factors which are unknowable at this stage. 
Will there still be a majority for Brexit as the details become clearer?  Given UKIP’s current propensity for implosion, will there still be a viable political party able to capitalise on that?  I don’t know the answer to either of those questions.  I’m fairly confident, however, that if those who think that Brexit is the wrong thing to do keep saying that the result cannot be changed, and restrict debate solely to the terms of the exit, they make the Farage scenario more likely, not least because they do nothing to persuade people to turn away from the path on which they have set us all.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The losers will still lose

I’m sure that I have more than a vague memory that in the last two UK general elections the winning party told us that eliminating the deficit was absolutely essential and that the sky would fall in if we didn’t.  Something along those lines anyway.  After the first of those elections, they told us it would have to be done by the end of that parliament, and their then best mates the Lib Dems agreed with them, albeit whilst quibbling about some of the details.  And after the second of those elections, they told us it would have to be done by the end of this parliament, and that it would be a lot easier without needing to have those little quibbles with their now former best mates.
Yesterday, they told us that actually, that wasn’t necessary either, and it doesn’t matter if the target isn’t achieved in this parliament – indeed, it doesn’t even matter if there’s no longer any particular target date.  Inevitably, they are blaming – in part, at least – Brexit, the argument being that a change of circumstances leads to a change of policy.  The funny thing is, though, that I don’t remember them saying in either of those two elections that there was any dependency on any particular set of circumstances or events; the need was both pressing and absolute. 
Those of us who suggested that this was all much more to do with ideology than economics were dismissed as spendthrifts, and the media – particularly the BBC – did its bit to support what was then the orthodox position by hostile questioning of any politician who had no plan to eliminate the deficit.  Labour, as usual, caved in to that pressure and agreed that the deficit needed to be eliminated, arguing only about the timescale and method.
But what yesterday confirmed is what some were saying all along.  Firstly, the deficit isn’t something which exists in splendid isolation regardless of economic circumstances – its existence and size inevitably vary over time depending on the point in the economic cycle.  It was always economic madness to seek to eliminate it at a time when the economy was weak.  And secondly, the government’s finances are not like those of a household.  Within limits, it really is possible to run a deficit more or less indefinitely, depending on a range of factors including the rate of economic growth and the rate of inflation.  I can understand why that ‘feels’ wrong to so many people, but ‘feeling’ wrong doesn’t make it actually wrong.
Blaming Brexit is something of a soft option, allowing the government a fig leaf to cover a policy U-turn.  But it’s only a partial U-turn, in the sense that whilst policy towards running a deficit has changed, policy on who should benefit from government actions – and who should pay the costs – still looks remarkably consistent with that of the previous government.  On that score, only the rhetoric has changed.